Arcadia is bustling when I meet with Brisbane Festival’s Artistic Director David Berthold on the Festival’s second day. The ‘Festival Central’ – pop-up bars, activities and stages along the South Bank waterfront – is filling up as people gather to stake out the best spots to watch the River of Light display. “Every time I turn my head over there I see more people,” Berthold says enthusiastically as we look out from the Divine bar.
Some eight shows began their festival season on opening night, including the river’s light and laser spectacle, which will soon see the riverbank packed again and children climbing the giant colourful letters of the word ‘Brisbane’ that overlook the river, eager to see to the water fountain, and hear the story – this year about the arrival of Europeans to Brisbane – told by Yuggera and Toorbal man Shannon Ruska.
“One of the great things was the Jacob Collier concert last night, which was out of this world, I’ve got to say,” Berthold says. “The Concert Hall was totally full for that, so it was quite a joyous way to start.”
While the Festival’s opening weekend is off to a flying start, several of the bigger pieces are yet to come. Yang Liping’s epic Rite of Spring and Leo Warner’s Invisible Cities (featured in the September issue of Limelight) – an incredible dance/theatre/multimedia piece based on Italo Calvino’s novel and staged in a huge warehouse in Yeerongpilly – open later in the Festival. “So we’re kind of pacing ourselves a bit,” Berthold says.
Invisible Cities. Photograph courtesy of Brisbane Festival
Berthold would have loved to have the set-piece Invisible Cities on the Festival’s opening weekend. “But it just wasn’t physically possible,” he says. “Invisible Cities just premiered in Manchester and it takes 50 days for the freight to arrive by sea. So we only just made it, as it was, for the final week! That’s the simple reason – otherwise it would have been a perfect festival opener.”
While the three shipping containers are yet to arrive, building has begun in the warehouse space. “All the basic infrastructure, putting in the lighting grids in the warehouse and all the seating and all that kind of stuff – I’m really looking forward to it,” Berthold says.
Haze from the Queensland bushfires blanketed the city earlier in the day, but it has lifted by the evening and the weather is sunny, if a little breezy. “The weather’s always pretty good in September, and particularly here, as we’re sitting here down in Arcadia by the river,” Berthold says.
The weather can be a concern for a Festival which boasts so many outdoor events and while some, like the Fire Gardens or River of Light, are relatively weather proof (though high winds can blow away the canvas of water onto which the lights are projected), others are more sensitive – such as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra concert, Symphony for Me, which will take place at Riverstage for the first time this year. “Being an orchestra, the slightest hint of rain they’ll be offstage, of course, with their instruments, so we’re on tenterhooks for that, to make sure it doesn’t sprinkle or anything,” Berthold says.
The free concert – a touching event that sees members of the public tell stories about pieces of music that mean something significant to them – has been hugely popular. “When we did it in the Concert Hall, the last three times, all the tickets are gone in about ten, fifteen, minutes,” Berthold says. “We were curious to know how it would go down in Riverstage.”
Riverstage, which celebrated its 30th birthday on the Festival’s opening weekend, has the capacity for an audience of some 9,000 people, Berthold explains, a lot more than the QPAC Concert Hall’s 1,800. “All the tickets were gone in about 10 hours,” he says, obviously thrilled. “The first 2,000 went in about 10 minutes, we could predict that, but then we were interested in how much more than that there was beyond that.”
While the numbers are far greater, Berthold doesn’t think the new venue will change the way the event comes across. “It’s always been a very loose concert – a very friendly, talkative concert,” he says. “I can only imagine being at Riverstage will make that even more so – people are lounging around on the grass having picnics – but I think it will actually enhance the tone of it.”
River of Light at the 2018 Brisbane Festival. Photo © Atmosphere Photography
For Berthold, it’s this blending of social and cultural events that he’ll miss the most, when he finishes up as Artistic Director after this year’s Festival. “Being down here is really exhilarating, and seeing happiness on people’s faces in this part of the environment” he says, looking out at the growing crowd in Arcadia. “Even River of Light, which on one hand is a spectacle, [is] very deeply cultural at the same time, telling that Aboriginal story, so even though it’s a social space, the cultural elements of it are still very, very present.”
“I’ll miss that – seeing that mix of the social and the cultural in it,” he says. “Which has been very much a hallmark of the Festival, I think, through my time.”
Berthold – who has trips planned to Israel and Washington DC once the job’s done here – will also miss the excitement of works like Invisible Cities. “Those kind of really one-off epic things,” he says. “To be in the space, when you know the amount of work that’s gone into it, and the amount of planning over a number of years, and the work that the artists have put in together to create such an epic thing – the experience of sitting there when it finally arrives – particularly in a case like that where you’re inventing a venue for it as well in a warehouse, at monumental scale, that’s a very special experience.”
“You don’t often get that if you’re running a theatre company, for example, not conventionally,” he says. “So I’ll miss that sort of experience, which is one of the particularly joys of running a large international arts festival.”
The Brisbane Festival runs until September 28